Boring Combats: Putting Weight On The Wrong Foot

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1052

A GM asked how to keep combats entertaining. By the third round, they said, all their players were bored and just wanted the fight to end.

Combat without purpose becomes a grind. 

One awesome solution you can use: Combat Missions.

But it’s more than that.

Toastmasters taught me to start with the audience and ask one key question:

How do I want the audience to feel during and after my speech?

So too it is with combats.

Think of melees not as the end, but as part of the journey.

A journey that builds to a fantastic emotional payoff.

Combat provides a vehicle that delivers excitement, fretful moments, and surprises.

But don’t use combat as the end. It’s a storytelling tool for your GM Toolbox.

Make Combat Part of Your Story

Some games have conditioned us to view combat itself as the end-game.

After all, it’s where we put the treasure, right?

But what if you lifted your storyteller’s gaze up and looked further afield?

What if you use combat as an exciting obstacle to your story’s next milestone?

And you make treasure part of character and story development, building up to key plot moments.

For example, let’s consider two scenarios.

The Ghost In The Glade: Scenario One

The PCs must find out what’s causing woodsmen to disappear.

They trace the problem to a ghost.

The party stalks the ghost, lures it out, and whack it.

At the grave, there’s buried treasure.

Standard encounter.

The Ghost In The Glade: Scenario Two

Ok. Same setup.

But you do not put the ghost combat at the end of your plot.

The confrontation and battle does not resolve things.

Instead, the real adventure involves finding the ghost’s murderer and bringing them to justice.

This not only puts the murdered soul to rest, but the identity of the murder is a shocking twist.

The story here no longer becomes about combat.

When the PCs confront the ghost, we don’t care how the plot progresses. The characters can fight, parley, or trick the ghost.

And we’ve got ways in each case to raise the spectre of murder (sorry not sorry for the pun) to keep the plot moving forward.

Shift the Story Weight Away From Combat

The difference between scenario one and two can be subtle.

In scenario one, we put our GMing stakes into the combat.

If the combat falls flat, we feel the session falls flat too.

“My players got bored by round three.” You feel on the inside: “I’m a terrible GM.”

But in scenario number two, we have no stakes in the combat itself. Who cares if the fight was too easy or anti-climatic? Who cares if there’s a fight at all?

Should the players choose violence, make the combat fast, as always, and move on.

If the combat bogs down, end it with an Out.

“My players got bored by round three. So I had the ghost beg for mercy and plead for help getting justice.

“We ended the combat there and everyone was excited by the idea of tracking down a murderer.

“Two encounters later they uncovered the murderer’s identity, and everyone started yelling in surprise!

“Now the players have a big quandary. Serve up justice or let Krug the fighter PC’s father escape?”

You feel: “The combat was a flop. But the session was awesome!”

The energy and emotion you want your players to experience comes from the bigger picture.

I feel like I’m writing this tip for myself.

With 75% of D&D 5E character sheets devoted to combat, and 75% of my shelf’s books devoted to combat (monsters, stat blocks, combat rules and options), I’m a hammer seeing everything as a nail.

Our best approach comes from creating situations and letting players choose the means.

If they pick a fight, then it’s got to be because players want that. Else, they’d choose a different option.

Your agenda no longer hinges on combats being the source of fun. They are but one means.